Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Story is Everywhere

I realize I've been waxing perhaps a little too profound in my last few posts on story structure. I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing--I find it helpful for my own craft to analyze structure below the surface level. But what remains important for me is to not feel beholden to the structure. Structure is meant to be manipulated and defied; rules are meant to be broken (at least when it comes to writing). But in order to manipulate, defy, and break the rules effectively, knowing what they are beforehand is essential. So, basically, that's what I'm doing with this particular blog series: getting to know the rules a little better. ("Why hello, rules, the pleasure is all mine.")

That said, I can sometimes get carried away. So, today, something a bit lighter.

I danced with Trevor Guthrie some time ago on the BYU Ballroom Dance Company. We only were on a team together for a year, but he was a cool guy and a great dancer. Well, for the past three years, he and Sydney Jensen have won the National Amateur Dancesport Cabaret competition at the BYU National Dancesport Championships. So, yeah, they're really great dancers. They recently made a video re-make of the dance that they first won with in 2012. Check it out:

Pretty awesome. Not as cool as the first time they won nationals with it in front of a crowd*, because, you know, audience and context really make performance art what it is. But still, this video is great, and very well done. (Also, a shout out to Curt Holman, the choreographer, an amazing guy and dance director with freaking awesome choreography, and to Ingrid Michaelson and this song, which is a really really great song.)

Anyway, the point is this: I can totally see story and progression in this dance. In the song, in the choreography, in the emotions of the dancers. The Hero's Journey, the Virgin's Promise, even Dan Harmon's eight points are all here. I won't go into detail on exactly what, because this post is supposed to be short and sweet and I've already said too much. But, basically:

story is everywhere.

* Of course I'll post a link. Here's their national competition-winning performance from 2012:

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

An Inward Spiral (Or: The Virgin's Promise, Part Deux)

Warning: It's probably a good idea to check out Part 1 where I talk about the Virgin's Promise in general before you read this post. Just sayin'.

While the Hero's Journey is traditionally a circle, the Virgin's Promise is better described as an inward-moving spiral. "Female heroes," Christopher Vogler states, in the "Forward" to The Virgin's Promise,
seem to move towards the center of a series of rings that represent the different levels of female relationships [...]. Then they may return through all those levels, unwinding the spiral, applying what they have learned at their center to each set of relationships.
The inward spiral hearkens back to the central dichotomy between the Hero's Journey and the Virgin's Promise: Heroes are concerned with external circumstances and their place within them (mythology); Virgins focus on the internal, developing self-worth and self-hood (folklore). The Hero's Journey progresses into the deep unknown and back up again; the Virgin's Promise spirals ever inward.

This idea of an inward spiral fascinates me, but I've yet to find in the book or on the internet a diagram that graphically demonstrates it (I have the e-book version of TVP, maybe there's a diagram in the print version?). So I played around with it on my own, and came up with this:

Yay! Another hand drawn diagram! I'm sure you're all overjoyed
to have such constant access to my artistic skills.
I think the inward spiral works out quite well on paper. We begin with the Dependent World in the upper middle of the circle, and progress clockwise through the Virgin's Promise until we reach stage nine, Kingdom in Chaos. At that point we reverse directions, and while the diagram doesn't represent this, my thinking is that from Kingdom in Chaos until the final stage, Kingdom is Brighter, the Virgin progresses back outward, "unwinding the spiral" as Vogler puts it. That said, I also like the visual of Kingdom is Brighter at the center of the circle; it gives the cycle a nice cherry-on-top sort of feeling.

There's other neat stuff, too. You'll notice that the stages are now organized into spokes, according to this diagram. That isn't on accident. The "northern" spoke contains Dependent World, Secret World, Kingdom in Chaos, and Kingdom is Brighter. The association between these stages is obvious: they're all part of the relational triangle between the Virgin, the Kingdom/Dependent World, and the Secret World. This spoke is largely external in nature.

Price of Conformity, No Longer Fits Her World, and Re-Ordering (Rescue) make up the eastern spoke. This spoke is generally internal, in contrast to the northern spoke. Each of these stages deals heavily with the Virgin's personal value (how she sees herself) and personal authority, or power.

The southern spoke consists of Opportunity to Shine, Caught Shining, and Chooses Her Light. The theme of light here is unmistakable. Like the eastern spoke, this spoke is mostly internal, and deals with the Virgin's pursuit of her Dream, and her connection with what I'm calling her "Inner Goddess" (which has ties to Harmon and Campbell, but I'll get to that later*).

The western spoke contains Dresses the Part, Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck, and Wanders in the Wilderness. This spoke, like the northern spoke, is mostly external, and deals with the Virgin's outward energy, change, transformation, and sacrifice.

This version of the inward spiral splits the Virgin's Promise into the three-act format I gave it yesterday quite well, too. The first ring contains Dependent World, Price of Conformity, Opportunity to Shine, and Dresses the Part--Act I, or what I've deemed Discovery.

Act II, or Growth, follows the second ring of Secret World, No Longer Fits Her World, Caught Shining, Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck, and (to cheat just a little bit because it's technically on the third ring) Kingdom in Chaos.

Act III, Fulfillment, finished the third ring with Wanders in the Wilderness, Chooses Her Light, Re-Ordering (Rescue), and Kingdom is Brighter.

Pretty cool, no?

Now, let's talk about Dan Harmon's story structure just for a moment. Yesterday I mentioned briefly how the Virgin's Promise can still follow Harmon's structure, with one or more of the thirteen stages fitting into each point of Harmon's YOU, NEED, GO, SEARCH, FIND, TAKE, RETURN, CHANGE circle. That is definitely true. But one of the cool things about Harmon's structure (and most story structures in general, as far as I know) is that it is (they are) fractal* in nature. Harmon encourages us to
think of each of the 8 steps as consisting of 8 microcosmic substeps. [...] I'm not recommending that you sit there with a compass and a calculator breaking down your story to the point where every 4 second line of dialog consists of 8 syllables and tells the story of a sentence, but it's possible and sometimes "going there" can help you make decisions or get unblocked. ("Story Structure 106: Five Minute Plots")
Essentially, each of the eight points in Harmon's story structure can be divided into eight more points of the same distinction, and so on ad infinitum. The same principle applies to the Virgin's Promise; while the thirteen stages of TVP fit into Harmon's eight points, you can also break it down into each act, as it were, and this inward spiral demonstrates that very well. Check it:

Another awesome visual aid. Word to ya mammz.
Modified version! If you remember Harmon's structure, you'll remember that a key point is the protagonist's descent into chaos, unconsciousness, and the unknown (see "Story Structure 102" to refresh your memory). The same applies to the Virgin's Promise, but on the microcosm level. The top half of the diagram represents life, consciousness, and order, while the bottom shaded area represents death, unconsciousness, and chaos. The northern spoke and it's stages occur, on a micro level and to varying degrees, in areas of order and consciousness for the Virgin. The stages on the southern spoke, obviously, occur in chaos and unconsciousness. The eastern and western spokes represent liminal spaces where the Virgin discovers a NEED and then GOES into and RETURNS from chaos, having CHANGED. Really, it works out. Read Hudson's description of each of the stages in TVP; each one fits quite nicely into these spokes, these acts/rings, and this pattern of descending into the unknown and coming back changed, somehow.

I geek out about this kind of stuff, guys. I think it's awesome.

Anyway. So there's kind of my personal touch on the Virgin's Promise, as seen through a Dan Harmon-ish lens.

My story structure series isn't over yet, though--I'll be applying the Virgin's Promise to a recent movie or two in the near future, among other things, so keep your eyes open for that!

* And by later, I apparently mean I'll get to it in a later post...

** Not only is "fractal" one of the coolest words in the English language, but it is a fascinating concept as well, especially in relation to story. And will surely be the subject of a post on my blog, one day...

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Virgin's Promise (Part 1)

I mentioned when I crash-coursed through the Hero's Journey that there were some bits I didn't entirely appreciate--mainly the stark lack of female perspective in the Hero's Journey cycle. Now, to be clear, that doesn't mean that women cannot experience the Hero's Journey, or that there aren't thousands of countless "Heroine's Journeys" out there, because there certainly are. But the Hero's Journey itself has an inherently masculine structure and terminology (and to be quite honest, Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces got a little too misogynistic for my tastes at times). Well, I researched feminine perspectives on the Hero's Journey, and finally found a book that captures what I was looking for: Kim Hudson's The Virgin's Promise* (hereafter referred to as TVP).

Why a Feminine Perspective?

Christopher Vogler, who wrote The Writer's Journey (which is essentially a "Campbell for Dummies Writers"), also wrote the foreword to TVP. While he considers the Hero's Journey to be a gender-neutral cycle, he sort of explains the need for a book like TVP:
There is more than a drop of testosterone in the assumptions and specifics of the Hero's Journey, starting with that word "hero." [...] When I started lecturing about the Hero's Journey, many people immediately assumed I was talking about male action heroes, superheroes, traditionally male military heroes, etc. Women would say "Fine, I get it about the man's journey to go out and conquer something, but what's the woman's journey?" ("Forward," TVP)
While I definitely think the Hero's Journey is gender-neutral insofar as both males and females can take on the role of the "hero," I myself have felt the absence of alternate views and journeys**, mainly from a more internal, emotional perspective. I'm also a self-proclaimed feminist (or pro-feminist, whichever you prefer), and while I consider the Hero's Journey valuable for stories as well as life in general, I think the view is incomplete and, basically, biased. The Virgin's Promise provides that point of view I've been missing. Of course, while TVP demonstrates an archetypal (there's that word again) feminine cycle, male characters can take a spin on that cycle just as easily (that is a super-weird mixed metaphor...). Just like the Hero's Journey, the path applies to any gender.

Mythology vs. Folklore

Interestingly, while the Hero's Journey is largely derived from mythological archetypes, the Virgin's Promise takes shape from folklore. While there are many differences between myths and folktales, the chief distinction for our purposes is this: fairy tales focus on self-worth and self-hood, while myths concentrate on themes of place in the world and obligation. The Virgin (which is, of course, the term Hudson uses for the protagonist of the Virgin's Promise cycle) aspires to answer questions regarding her own self-knowledge and place in the world, independent of what everyone else thinks of her, while the Hero concerns himself with survival in the world at large and overcoming the fear of death ("Fairy Tales and Myths," TVP).

That bit about mythology vs. folklore is one of the lynchpins of the Hero's Journey vs. the Virgin's Promise, so remember it. That said, let's get into the nitty-gritty.

So What is the Virgin's Promise?

Like the Hero's Journey, the Virgin's Promise outlines a protagonist's passage from one state of being to another, and how that change affects the world around her. The Hero has a goal he must accomplish; the Virgin has a Dream she must realize. The two structures are similar, of course, but the details can be very different. Hudson outlines thirteen main points in the Virgin's Promise. Because I'm a sucker for symmetry, I've taken the liberty of splitting those thirteen points into three different "Acts," similar to the Departure, Initiation, and Return Acts of the Hero's Journey. For the Virgin's Promise, I chose Discovery, Growth, and Fulfillment. Those terms seemed to denote the type of journey the Virgin undertakes most accurately. So, the thirteen points are as follows:

Act I: Discovery:

1. Dependent World - While the Hero begins in an Ordinary World, the Virgin begins in a Dependent World which provides everything the Virgin needs (or thinks she needs) as long as she adheres to certain rules (the Dependent World can be a parental figure, a friend, a lover, a career, or pretty much anything). This is the main obstacle, the antagonist, which keeps the Virgin from realizing her Dream; it may be an outside force in her Kingdom, or simply a belief in the Virgin's mind which keeps her attached to the Dependent World.

2. Price of Conformity - The price the Virgin pays to stay attached to her Dependent World. Hudson describes it as "the suppression of the Virgin's true self" ("Stage Two: Price of Conformity" TVP). The ultimate price, of course, is the Virgin's Dream--she has to pay the price of not realizing her Dream in order to stay attached to the Dependent World.

3. Opportunity to Shine - The Virgin sees an opportunity to temporarily pursue her Dream, without any real consequences or effect on her Dependent World. She takes this opportunity, proving that she can, at least in theory, realize her Dream.

4. Dresses the Part - Once her Dream goes from her unconscious mind to her conscious state of being in Opportunity to Shine, the Virgin will never be the same. She makes a permanent change to her demeanor and/or appearance to demonstrate the intense changes occurring within her. Hudson discusses four common metaphors for this phase of the cycle: "Becoming Beautiful," "Receiving a Physical Object," "Participating in a Fashion Show," and "Undressing" ("Stage Four: Dresses the Part" TVP).

Act II: Growth:

5. The Secret World - Having experienced the beauty and excitement of her Dream, the Virgin now attempts to please everyone (including herself, which is a significant step--her own needs and wants were never on her to-do list before) by continuing to participate in her Dependent World, the Kingdom, and her new, Secret World. What she thought was a one-time thing in Opportunity to Shine now becomes something much larger, but something that the Virgin still believes is manageable and reconcilable with her Dependent World. A constant fear that the Virgin's Secret World will somehow be discovered and outed by the denizens of her Dependent World plagues this phase of the cycle.

6. No Longer Fits Her World - The Virgin realizes that she cannot juggle her Secret World and her Dependent World forever. She must choose between them, and more and more she realizes she cannot live without her Secret World.
She is defining her own values and claiming her own personal authority. There is a growing discomfort with going back to the Dependent World and angst about having a Secret World. ("Stage Six: No Longer Fits Her World" TVP)
The Virgin often becomes reckless, confused, attracts attention to herself, or declares the task too hard. She narrowly holds on to her Secret World, but now realizes the impossibility of satisfying both worlds.

7. Caught Shining - Hudson explains it best:
At this point in the archetypal structure, reality hits and the Virgin must face the fact that she cannot keep her two worlds separated any more. The Secret World and the Dependent World collide and the feared consequences manifest. The Virgin often finds herself punished, shamed, or exiled. ("Stage Seven: Caught Shining" TVP)
The Virgin's Secret World is no longer secret, and this inevitably has a cost. The reason she is Caught Shining could be any number of the following: she grows too big for her Secret World, her circumstances change, she is recognized by her Dependent World, or she may be betrayed. Either way, the result is the same. The Virgin must now choose between her two worlds, or the choice will be made for her.

8. Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck - The Virgin now understands she must let something go, allow it to die, in order to fully realize her Dream and make it her reality. She faces grief and harsh realities, here; it is perhaps the most difficult phase of her journey. She may fear being hurt, or fear losing those who love her, but she makes the choice to do it anyway, because she finally understands that if her Secret World does not become her reality, she will never truly live at all. The Virgin transforms from being passive, servile, small, or nice, and becomes rebellious--she finally recognizes that she does not have to accept others' dreams over her own. Hudson calls this
the major turning point in the psychological growth of the Virgin. It is also one of the most difficult to clearly express and the key to the deeper meaning in the story. ("Stage Eight: Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck" TVP)
9. Kingdom in Chaos - Like a pebble thrown into a still pond, the Virgin's decision to Give Up What Kept Her Stuck creates a ripple effect felt throughout the Kingdom. The denizens of the Dependent World, intent on keeping things as they always have been, do all in their power to suppress the Virgin's newfangled ideas and keep the order they've always known.

Act III: Fulfillment:

10. Wanders in the Wilderness - Confronted by her Dependent World, the Virgin must now make another choice: fall back into line, as her Kingdom insists, or pursue her Dream to the end.
The Wanders in the Wilderness stage is a test of the Virgin's conviction and it is her moment of doubt. She is faced with an opportunity to demonstrate her growth and no longer accept a world that requires her to be smaller than she can be. ("Stage Ten: Wanders in the Wilderness" TVP, emphasis added)
The night is always darkest before the dawn, as they say, and Wanders in the Wilderness is the Virgin's darkest night before she finally...

11. Chooses Her Light - Again, Hudson says it best:
In Chooses Her Light, the Virgin decides to trust herself and pursue her dream or passion, whatever happens. This is the last stage of her transformation and a joyous climax to her story. She would rather shine than be safe or maintain order. ("Stage Eleven: Chooses Her Light" TVP, emphasis added)
At long last, the Virgin reveals her true self to the Kingdom. Reactions vary, but ultimately don't matter to the Virgin's progression. What does matter? She has finally made the decision to live her Dream. 

12. Re-Ordering/Rescue - Now that the Virgin has no Secret World--she lives openly--she challenges her Kingdom to keep up with her and accept her vision of life. Hudson emphasizes two aspects of the Re-Ordering: acknowledging the Virgin's worth as she fulfills her dream, and "reconnect[ing] the Virgin with a community" ("Stage Twelve: Re-Ordering [Rescue]" TVP).

13. Kingdom is Brighter - The Virgin and her Kingdom are finally reconciled, and a new order is established. Both the Kingdom and the Virgin are better off for the Virgin's journey. The Virgin's process creates a chain reaction that transforms the entire world around her:
When the Virgin is loved for who she believes herself to be, rather than because she is meeting the expectations of others, she has moved from knowing conditional love to unconditional love. This type of love creates a strong and meaningful bond between the Virgin and the kingdom. Unconditional love then spreads to other members of the kingdom. ("Unconditional Love Binds the Kingdom" TVP)
So, there you have it. The Virgin's Promise, in a nutshell. I certainly suggest you check out the book for the full story; Hudson does a great job of explaining each of these stages in context.

What About Dan Harmon?

We can't forget about him, can we? Certainly not. What I appreciate about Harmon's structure is that, at least in my opinion, it applies just as well to the Virgin's Promise as it does the Hero's Journey. Check it:

Dependent World = YOU
Price of Conformity/Opportunity to Shine = NEED
Dresses the Part = GO
The Secret World = SEARCH
No Longer Fits Her World/Caught Shining = FIND
Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck/Kingdom in Chaos = TAKE
Wanders in the Wilderness/Chooses Her Light/Re-Ordering (Rescue) = RETURN
Kingdom is Brighter = CHANGE

I'll go into more detail on how the Virgin's Promise relates to Dan Harmon's theories on story structure, but that will have to come in a later post. This bit has already gone on too long--so if you've stuck with me, Congratulations!--you're awesome. Stay tuned for more on the Virgin's Promise, story structure, and awesome stuff in general.

* On something of a side-note, jumping into TVP right after Campbell's Hero was a bit of a culture shock. Campbell's prose is so intellectual and harvardian (yaleish?), reading the two back-to-back made Hudson's writing seem sort of grad-school-y in comparison (and yes I definitely mean grad-school-y, not grade-school-y, in case you think that's a typo...). Which doesn't mean her writing was bad by any means; in fact, while Campbell's prose had a tendency to bore me to tears or lose me in intellectual aphorisms, Hudson's was concise, to the point, and easy to follow. So while Hudson may not sound as smart as Campbell (and let's be honest--who does?), her writing was much more accessible. Vogler's The Writer's Journey would actually be a great in-between read, I think, to transition from Hero to TVP.

** Terminology plays an important role here: while The Hero's Journey and The Virgin's Promise can constitute completely different paths, many of the specifics can sometimes seem almost synonymous. While this is far from the case (similarities between the two structures exist, certainly, but they are ultimately two very different paths), the distinction is often most clearly demonstrated by terminology.

Friday, April 25, 2014

#FIF: Stephen King's Writing Advice

Time for another #FIF! In honor of my ongoing blog series on story structure, I figured it would be appropriate to mention one of the only works on my formative influences list that talks about craft: Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Stephen King has gotten a lot of flak over the years. He's a hack, people say. A sellout, a genre lackey. You know what, though? All those people can suck it. He's one of the still-living writers I most respect, and not just because he's sold like a billion books or something. The dude's got chops. He's written (and published!) more than fifty novels, a half dozen nonfiction books, and over two hundred short stories. If that in and of itself isn't a stellar CV for a writer, then I don't know what is. King adheres to one of the most basic principles of writing that I know of, and that is to be prolific. So he's got that going for him, if nothing else.

And, let's be honest, of King's books, some of them really are awful. He's admits to as much himself in On Writing. But some of them are absolute gems: The Stand, Bag of Bones, and his Dark Tower series are all great reads. And his first novel, the iconic Carrie--perhaps my favorite I've read form him--is a tour de force in terror and storytelling. He won an O. Henry prize for his short story "The Man in the Black Suit," and Best American Short Stories 2007, which he edited, is one of my all time favorites of the Best American series.

But perhaps what I love most about Stephen King is his no-nonsense attitude and approach to the craft, and On Writing is full of such awesomeness. King approaches the topic with a warning, first referring readers to Elements of Style by Stunk and White (one of the single greatest tools a writer can have), and then stating that
This [On Writing] is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don't understand very much about what they do--not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit. (King, "Second Forward")
I've read a dozen or two books on writing and craft, and writers with this ability to zone out their pretentiousness when they talk about writing are rare. King merely states what has worked for him, along with some standard tools that every writer should learn to use, and that's about it.

The book itself is full of gems:

  • King describes his muse, an old, cranky dude lurking in the shadows, smoking a cigar.
  • Hearing about King's sale of Carrie, and his family's circumstances that led up to that event, is delightful, and more than a little motivational for aspiring folks like me.
  • King talks about how there are four types of writers: the bad, the mediocre, the good, and the great. While you can't teach a bad writer to be mediocre, he says, and you can't teach a good writer to be great, you can teach mediocre writers to be good, and that's what On Writing is all about.
  • King is also a notorious discovery writer in the purest sense of the term--he begins each story with an idea or a character, and lets the story take over from there. He doesn't believe in outlines or premeditated structure of any kind, and it shows in On Writing. While I'm not quite such a discovery purist as King, I'm much closer to that side of the spectrum than the outlining side. So hearing his perspective was helpful for me, especially when books on the craft seem to be predominantly written by outlining writers. (Although, if you're looking for other craft books by discovery writers, I suggest Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott--it's a distant but solid second for me as far as books on craft go.)

Also, I happen to have the audiobook version of On Writing, read by King himself, which was a delight to listen to. So, if you have the chance, check that out.

Long story short: Stephen King writes (and gives writing advice) like a boss. He's a great, talented, and prolific writer, and I've learned a lot of what I do directly from him. If you're a writer, and you're looking to learn, I suggest you go read/listen to On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft immediately.

I Can Haz Dragonz? vs. Orcnado! (Or: Ick.)

So the third and final The Hobbit film is now titled The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

E.C. Myers, young adult author, captures my feelings about this decision quite accurately:
But let's be honest: Jackson could call this movie The Hobbit: I Can Haz Dragonz? vs. Orcnado! And Also A Climactic Battle Will Take Up 9/10 Of This Movie So Give Me UR Moneys Plz and, get the picture.

I loved the LOTR films. They are some of my favorite films of all time. But The Hobbit movies just feel like...well, they feel like this, and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is certainly no exception.

...but, yeah, I'll definitely still see it.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Hero's Journey

More story structure! Today, we'll be looking at the figurative bible of all stories everywhere*: The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Archetypal is the word of the day when it comes to talking about Joseph Campbell. His book examines broad swathes of mythology, finding and establishing recurring themes and common core motifs. The result, of course, is what has come to be known as the Hero's Journey.

For those who haven't ready THWATF (yeesh even the acronym is a pain to type, how about Hero from now on...), you may want to take a deep breath before you do. And maybe a course on Jungian psychology. And maybe get a few master's degrees in ancient mythology. Because to get the most out of Hero, that's the least of what you'll need. Campbell is a smart dude; he knows his stuff, and there's no dumbing-down, no condescension to the layman in Hero; the prose is just as dense as the subject matter.

But don't worry, there's hope--if a schmuck like me can glean the general meaning from Hero, you probably can, too. (And, even if you can't, there's always Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, which is basically the CliffsNotes for Hero. But more on that later.)

So what are the common themes Campbell finds in the myths of the world? He narrows it down to the following cycle:

Excuse the blurriness.
Yay, another circle! Although this one goes bafflingly counter-clockwise; Dan Harmon's clockwise circle makes much more sense to me. I mean, counterclockwise, Campbell? Come on, man, you're better than that.

To be clear, Joseph Campbell's Hero isn't only for story-makers; it's more of a mythological exegesis--Campbell excavates the mythos and stories of dozens, if not hundreds, of cultures--the intent of which is to make us think about general truths of life. Campbell quotes Sigmund Freud in the preface to the 1949 edition of Hero:
The truths contained in religious doctrines are after all so distorted and systematically disguised that the mass of humanity cannot recognize them as truth. [...] We have become convinced that it is better to avoid such symbolic disguisings of the truth in what we tell children and not to withhold from them a knowledge of the true state of affairs commensurate with their intellectual level. (Campbell xii)
Commenting on Freud, Campbell goes on to state that
It is the purpose of the present book to uncover some of the truths disguised for us under the figures of religions and mythology by bringing together a multitude of not-too-difficult examples and letting the ancient meaning become apparent of itself. [...] My hope is that a comparative elucidation may contribute to the perhaps not-quite-desperate cause of those forces that are working in the present world for unification, not in the name of some ecclesiastical or political empire, but in the sense of human mutual understanding. (Campbell xii-xiii)
Basically, Campbell is looking for general truths that can be agreed upon by essentially anyone willing to see them. A lofty goal, if you ask me, and Campbell does a surprisingly good job of it. But Hero really is more of an examination of life in general rather than simple story structure.

The appeal to me, of course, is that the two happen to be inseparably connected. If you recall from my previous post on story structure, I quoted Dan Harmon exhorting us to
Realize that [story structure is] hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that, in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern. ("Story Structure 101")
So Hero, by aiming at general truth (with or without a capitol "T," I would say), becomes a great textbook on story structure, even if it wasn't exactly intended to be so in the first place.

That said, some adaptation is helpful, and that's where Christopher Vogler enters the picture again. His book The Writer's Journey essentially takes Campbell's work and applies it strictly to writing and telling stories. The following is my own interpretation of "the Hero's Journey," mostly straight from Campbell with one or two items from Vogler**:


1. Ordinary World - The hero begins, of course, in a world largely without conflict. Things are great; there is no need for change.

2. Call to Adventure - Suddenly: conflict! The hero finds or is given a reason to change something (whether it's him/herself or an outside circumstance).

3. Refusal of Call - But that reason may not yet be enough; the hero can be reluctant to take action because of cowardice, false duty, self-doubt, or laziness (just to name a few potential reason).

4. Supernatural Aid - Sometimes an external force, often divine or supernatural, gives the hero that final push to take action and get out the door and onto the Journey (which may be an external or internal journey, btw).

5. Crossing of Threshold - The point of no return; once the hero crosses this line, s/he is committed, and there's no going back to the ordinary world as it was.


6. The Road of Trials - The "training montage;" the hero goes through a series of trials, meetings, and conflicts that forge him/her into what s/he needs to be to triumph.

7. Meeting with Goddess - An encounter with another being or idea (often a woman, and often romantic in nature, but not necessarily either of those things) where the hero finds that last essential phlebotinum needed to finish the journey. Campbell says that "the meeting with the goddess [...] is the final test of the talent of the hero to win the boon of love (charity: amor fati), which is life itself enjoyed as the encasement of eternity" (Campbell 99). It's heavy stuff, guys. This is where stuffs get real.

8. Atonement with Father - "The father is the initiating priest through whom the young being passes on into the larger world" (115). Don't be fooled, though--the "father" (often but not necessarily a specific male being) isn't always sympathetic to the hero or his cause; this atonement can be a climactic battle, a fight scene, an argument, or even a monolog that helps the hero realize the final call to adventure, as it were, or what needs to happen to achieve what s/he has been working towards all along. "The hero transcends life [...] and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands--and the two are atoned" (125).***

9. Apotheosis - Exactly what the term means: the hero becomes, for all intents and purposes, divine in his/her ability to perceive, interpret, and shape the world.

10. Ultimate Boon - Sometimes, even more phlebotinum is needed to finish the Journey. The Hero receives/finds that here.


11. Refusal of Return - Sometimes, (like the refusal of the call--see any parallels, here) being deified and all, the hero doesn't want to return to the ordinary world. S/he needs an extra impetus.

12. Magic Flight/13. Rescue from Without - Again with the parallelism: If the hero has no desire or power to return on his/her own world, external forces often step in.

14. Crossing of Return Threshold - The hero returns to the ordinary world, although that world is no longer ordinary given the hero's new and improved presence.

15. Master of Two Worlds/16. Freedom to Live - The hero becomes the ultimate mover and shaker of the world: the romantic interest and the hero get together, the war is won, the goal accomplished, and people around the hero contribute to such changes simply because the hero has the magnetism to draw people to his/her cause.

So that's the short of it (for more, seriously, go read the book). Campbell's hero journey is certainly more complicated and detailed than Dan Harmon's, but I still feel the general implications of each step are broad enough to allow for interpretation; again, just like Harmon's formula, the idea behind the hero's journey isn't "follow these principles to make your story," but rather "if you have a story worth anything, it'll follow these principles." Which, now that I write it out, sounds completely like a chicken-and-egg scenario. But still, that's how I see it.

Also, you'll notice there's a general three-act structure to Campbell's theory: Departure being Act I, Initiation (meaning something closer to the ritualistic definition of the term rather than the "commencement" version) is Act II, and Return being Act III. I'll talk more about this in a later post, but it's important.

Either way, Harmon's structure is clearly established upon Cambell's theory. Just read this article and see how often he refers to Campbell directly, or at least uses Campbellian terminology. Essentially,

Ordinary World = YOU
Call to Adventure = NEED
Crossing the Threshold = GO
The Road of Trials = SEARCH
Meeting with Goddess = FIND
Atonement with Father = TAKE
Crossing of Return Threshold = RETURN
Master of Two Worlds = CHANGE

Other parts of the Campbellian process fit into Harmon's structure (which I believe I'll elaborate upon later), but that's the basic 1-for-1 conversion.

Anyway, that's The Hero With a Thousand Faces in a nutshell. I will say one thing, though: Campbell's theory isn't perfect, as exhaustive as it is. My chief concern with Hero is the lack of a female perspective as the hero--and some sections, "Woman as Temptress" in particular--feel downright misogynistic (whether that's because Campbell himself felt that way or because 99% of the cultures he studied were patriarchal at best, misogynistic at worst, or both, is unclear)****. But that gets me into the Virgin's Promise...which I'll talk about next time!

* Hero can be just as controversial and just as widely interpreted as the Bible itself, so the informal title is vaguely appropriate.

** The first item, "Ordinary World," is the only strictly Vogelian term. All the rest are Campbell's; although I left out two other sections in Campbell's order that I found redundant or unnecessary: "Belly of the Whale" and "Woman as Temptress," in that order (to find out what those sections discuss, go read the book!).

*** You'll notice I'm particularly interested in what happens in the "Meeting with Goddess" and "Atonement with Father" sections. What happens there and how the hero changes fascinates me, and may become the subject of a future blog post in and of itself.

**** I've tried to keep my explanation of things gender-neutral, although Campbell makes no such attempt (give him a break, though, it was like 70 years ago...).

Monday, April 21, 2014

Crude Hilarity, in All It's Glory:

Check this out.

The first item "Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed"? Plan B One-Step Emergency Contraceptive...1 Tablet. (There's a story here, a hilarious one I'm guessing...what situation(s?!) could possibly call for a 55-gallon drum of lubricant AND a SINGLE morning-after pill, I just...I can't even...)

Also, the reviews of the product are golden.

With that, Happy Monday.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

#TBT and SLC Comic Con

I'm at SLC Comic Con FanXperience today, tomorrow, and Saturday. Today was great but exhausting. Some great panels, lots of creative costumes, and James Marsters. Yes, that's right, I spent just a wee bit of time with Spike today, and that was awesome.

The costumes got me thinking, though. I didn't plan on dressing up for this Comic Con because I wanted to present at least a vaguely professional front, but it did remind me of some fun times Raych and I have had dressing up for random stuff. So, while I have never done a #TBT before (throwback thursday, it's a thing), I'll try one now. Check it out:

The Joker. I can be creepy when I have a mind to be.


Raych and some friends as Trelawney, Rita Skeeter, and Bellatrix LeStrange, at the HP 7.2 premier.

Final Fantasy! Black Mage, Moogle, Aeris, Tifa, Cloud.

Making this Buster Sword may be one of the greatest things I've ever done.

The Avengers - Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow, Thor.

Comic Con has def made me miss this hair....
So, there you have it. Proof I'm a complete nerd, and I don't care who knows it. Who am I kidding, you all knew that already.

So, yeah. I'm going to enjoy Comic Con. You may or may not hear from me in the next few days; if not, I've fallen into the black hole of conventions.........

Some Site Updates

Updated the following:

Changed my bio a bit.

Reorganized my Formative Influences page and explained #FIF.

Updated my Current Projects page, detailing the Blood Queen series and the currently existing projects in that universe.

Check 'em out, yo!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Story Structure (and Dan Harmon is Awesome)

So a couple weeks ago, before I dove into Dark Immolation, I was researching plot structure. My agent, when he first gave me notes on Duskfall, pointed me towards Dan Harmon's ideas of story structure, and reading his stuff got me thinking. Then I got to more reading. And suddenly I'd read a bunch of books and websites on story structure. So, I think it's safe to say that I'll be writing a series of posts on story structure in the next month or two.

But today I want to focus on Dan Harmon's method, which is pretty much the lens through which I'll be looking at the other forms because, let's be honest, it's the best. Or at least it's the best one for me. I've studied story structure in the past--most notably Dan Wells' 7-point structure, as well as Lou Anders' "hollywood formula at Worldcon last year--but nothing cemented in my brainbox quite like Dan Harmon's. I'll briefly cover it here, but he's a lot better at explaining it than I am, so if you're interested I suggest checking out the following:

Story Structure 101: Super Basic Shit
Story Structure 102: Pure, Boring Theory
Story Structure 103: Let's Simplify Before Moving On
Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details (this one is by far the most comprehensive, and what motivated me to go out and actually read things like Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but I suggest at least starting with 101 and 102 to get the basics down first)
Story Structure 105: How TV is Different
Story Structure 106: Five Minute Pilots

This is from my white-board wall, btw. Have I mentioned I have a
white-board wall? It's awesome.
So Harmon's basic idea is that you draw a circle, as demonstrated, with the following eight points around it:

  1. You
  2. Need
  3. Go
  4. Search
  5. Find
  6. Take
  7. Return
  8. Change

Ignore the stuff written in the middle of the circle; I may or may not go into more detail on that later (but Harmon does, so again, if you're interested, check out those websites above). For now I'm just going to focus on the eight plot points.

The story begins with you, a character who either is you (metaphorically or otherwise) or with which you can empathize, sympathize, or to which you can relate in just about any way. Said character then discovers they need (/want) something. S/he then goes to a location, condition, or set of circumstances that is unfamiliar to them (hence the shaded lower half of the circle--it represents the unknown, the un/subconscious, the dark basement where chaos reigns) and searches for the thing s/he needs, often by/through adapting to the new circumstances. S/he finds what was needed, and takes control of his/her destiny and pays the price for it. Then the character returns to the comfortable/familiar situation, having changed in significant, life-altering ways, after such a fashion that s/he now has mastery over the world in which s/he lives.

It's simple, it's elegant, and what perhaps hits home most of all for me is how much Harmon emphasizes the every-day-ness of it all--this basic journey is reflected in all narratives. The circular pattern of descent into chaos and return to order drives all stories; Harmon says to
Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern, [...] diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it's hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern. ("Story Structure 101")
That, more than anything else, draws me to this method of structuring stories. Other methods, to me, seem a bit too focused on plot points and what-happens-where and get a little too specific for me. This, instead, simply teaches me what a story is, and then gives me the freedom to make what I want with it.

So, in the next couple weeks (months?), I'll be examining at least two (perhaps more) significant methods of story structure, but I'll use Harmon's formula as the lens through which to view them. I think it'll be interesting. If you do, too, come on back and check it out.

Sidenote: By the way, right now I'm watching Community (written by Dan Harmon). For the first time. So many friends have insisted I watch the show, and I've finally gotten a hold of the first few seasons. And okay folks, this show is DELIGHTFUL. It is brilliant and hilarious and uses all sorts of TV and film tropes in wonderfully curious ways. It's a little early to say for sure (I'm only a few episodes into season 2), but it may have already usurped my co-favorite sitcoms, Arrested Development and Seinfeld. It's that good. So, yeah, I might talk more about that one day, too.

Monday, April 14, 2014

So Apparently...

...I missed a really cool thing, like a month and a half ago. For those of you who don't know, I have an agent over at JABberwocky these days. But a funny thing: when I was waiting for Sam to get back to me, before it was official, I would check the JABberwocky website like a dozen times a day just to see if there was any information, the slightest hint, of something official in the works for me (which, in retrospect, is totally crazy, because of course they would contact me with anything official before they posted it online...but my mind is crazy like that).

Once I signed with them, though, I was so flabbergasted and excited I forgot to scour their website for anything related to me. I lost track of my ego for a while, basically, which is kind of awesome, but always a temporary thing for me.

Anyway, my ego recently crept back up on me, and I found this page on their website. It's not much, but in some ways it kind of is. It is for me, anyway. Check out the fifth paragraph on the page, the last largish paragraph. The paragraph with my name in it.

It's these parts of the process that make me love what I'm doing, and, honestly, love where I am right now. Don't get me wrong--I can't wait to write more books, I can't wait to see my books in print, I can't wait to do all sorts of things. But seeing this makes me happy.

I don't know. It's kind of a cool thing. Sometimes an ego boost is necessary.

Friday, April 11, 2014

#FIF: The Things They Carried

I've already told you about what might be my favorite novel of all time. Now, let me tell you about what might be my favorite short story collection.

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien is brilliant. For me, it is the pinnacle combination of sharp, beautiful prose, and engaging, meaningful stories. Characters are vivid--helped by the fact that TTTC could also be read as a novel, as many of the same characters are recurring with there own vague character arcs, and there are some definite recurring themes.

But I prefer to think of it as a set of short stories. Each piece feels more powerful to me that way; they enhance each other but do not depend on one another.

I normally rate stories in collections I read on a 5-star system. Most collections, even by my favorite authors, have two, maybe three stories if they're incredibly saturated with talent, that merit five stars. The Things They Carried has nine*. Nine five-star stories, on my admittedly subjective scale, and not a single story with less than three (which is also a common occurrence--at least two or three stories are below three stars--in single-author collections). In fact, TTTC was the first collection I read where I had to modify my 5-star system simply because a few stories stood out even more than the nine that already achieved 5-star status. While the titular story is phenomenal, and many others are beautifully told, my three favorites in the collection are "On the Rainy River" (filled with brutal honesty, I feel like I'm genuinely in the narrator's shoes, in his head, experiencing things as he experienced them), "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" (fascinating character study, a change in structure, and perhaps one of the most haunting stories in the collection), and "The Lives of the Dead" (a non-war story that is still very much a war story, a story that manages to display real, tangible, genuine emotions, a story that deals with death, coping, and stories themselves).

But I'm not doing the collection justice. There is so much to say about it that I don't know how to say.

Here's maybe the general thing I'm getting at: Tim O'Brien is a brilliant writer. If I could aspire to write like anyone, O'Brien just might be at the top of my list. (Fortunately, as I writer, I've decided not to aspire to "write like" anyone, mainly because I honestly don't think it can be done, so there isn't much pressure where that is concerned.)

I'm particularly fascinated by his treatment of the concept of writing stories in the stories he's written (Tim O'Brien was meta before it was cool). He'll say things like
By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened [...], and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain. ("Notes")
For more than twenty years I've had to live with it, feeling the shame, trying to push it away, and so by this act of remembrance, by putting the facts down on paper, I'm hoping to relieve at least some of the pressure on my dreams. ("On the Rainy River")

Story-truth is sometimes truer than happening truth. ("Good Form" - actually, I could quote this entire story [it's only two pages long], because it gets at the heart of why his stories are so meaningful to me.)
Each one of those ideas cuts to the heart of me, of why I write in the first place. I tell stories to separate the truth of what I've experienced from what I've experienced--because, in my mind, there is a difference. I tell stories to "relieve at least some of the pressure on my dreams," because if I don't, they begin to overwhelm me. I tell stories because they are emotionally more true than the factual world I see around me. That doesn't mean I tell stories for the happy endings; sort of the opposite, actually. I tell stories for the true endings. The one's that are meaningful, that have been worked for, that the story deserves.

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried speaks to me because almost every single one of the stories penetrates deep down to the very reason I write in the first place. And I love that, because stories are meaningful. Stories are beautiful, and they are true, even (and sometimes especially) when they're not. And, most of all, because
This too is true: stories can save us. ("The Lives of the Dead")

* Those nine stories, in the order they appear in my collection, are as follows: "The Things They Carried," "On the Rainy River," "How to Tell a True War Story," "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," "Stockings," "The Man I Killed," "Notes," "Good Form," and "The Lives of the Dead." Each one is amazing.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Dark Immolation Progress

You may have noticed the progress bar for Dark Immolation slowly creeping up--at 4% now.

I have to say, it's wonderful to actually be composing again. Revisions have a certain appeal, but they have a certain, well, tediousness to them, too. Composing (or writing a first draft of a story), while much more difficult, is far more interesting, rewarding, and compelling. This is where the magic happens. This is where ideas I've never remotely considered begin popping off the page. It's where characters take shape, where they cut their teeth.

And, I have to say, Sarca--the main protagonist of Dark Immolation--is definitely taking shape. She's pretty freaking awesome. Or, at least, she will be by the time the book is done. DI is a bit of a coming of age story, a bit of a character study, and a bit of a zombie fantasy survival novel. It's basically awesome.

My current goal for writing DI is at least 1000 new words each day. So far that's been turning into 1200-1300, which is good news. I'm starting the goal small because it usually takes a while for me to build momentum with new projects. During the most intense parts of Duskfall I was pumping out 3k, sometimes almost 4k every day--a pretty lofty goal. Hopefully, with DI, I'll get to that point again. But for now it's a minimum of 1k/day. And sometimes those 1000 words take me an hour (which was the case Monday and Tuesday); sometimes they take me five (which was the case today--but that last hour flew). It's sort of weird how writing works, isn't it? As I get further along in DI, I expect to be more productive in the same amount of time. I don't know how that works, but it does. At least for me, at least so far.

It's interesting working on another novel, too. I finished DF five years ago, and while I've technically "started" two novels since then (about 20k words on one, about 7k words on another--which happened to be the first version of DI, actually), I haven't committed to any new projects. Between getting an MFA (and writing a collection of short stories as a thesis--the past 5 years have consisted of a lot of short stories, for me), teaching, and revising DF, I haven't had much time. But, now that DF is basically out of my hands, there's no better time to start something new. And it's exciting. It's also terrifying. The fear of belly-flopping and writing a complete disaster of a novel is sort of omnipresent. The very prose I'm writing often feels just...well...awful. But I'm a discovery writer, and it helps to remind myself of that. My first drafts are almost always, to quote Anne Lamott, rather shitty. First drafts are where the magic happens for me, but later drafts are where the magic comes together in something cohesive, coherent, and relatively well-written. So here's to that happening.

Anyway, there's a brief update on what's going on with me. Progress on DI is creeping along. In other news, my wife and I are planning for a trip to Italy we're taking later this year--we're going to be backpacking around the entire country, from Palermo to Milan. It's going to be aaaamaaaaziiiing (in Jean-Ralphio falsetto, in case you didn't catch that). So that is happening, too.

Basically, I'm just plugging away.

Friday, April 04, 2014

#FIF: Final Fantasy VII, Fanfiction, and How I Started Writing.

That's right, folks, it's time for another #FIF (Formative Influence Friday!). And today I'm covering none other than the one, the only, the legendary, the epic, the yes-it's-overhyped-but-I-still-love-it-video-game:


I'll be the first one to admit, my admiration of Final Fantasy VII is both romantic and nostalgic. Just thinking of FFVII takes me back to seventh grade, when I was a confused barely-teen who had nothing going for him socially, a voice that cracked more than Robert Downey Jr. (at the time) and shifted octaves more than Mariah Carey (re: weird puberty stuff), and no idea how to deal with any of it. There were some other things going on that contributed to my unhappiness, personally and in other relationships, but those things deserve entire posts unto themselves. Long story short: it was a sucky time in the land of Chris Husberg.

But, in a weird, twisted way, when I got my hands on FFVII, I found an escape from all that. So here's a caveat: my feelings for FFVII are clouded by the fact that the game essentially saved me from one of the worst parts of my growing-up. FFVII is the hero of my childhood. It provided me a distraction, a world where there were heroes and adventures and gigantic swords and dudes with long silver hair. So, I'm biased, and I know it.

Because let's be honest: FFVII, while it's popularity certainly endured more than any other FF (another topic on which entire essays could be written), isn't the best game around. Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger have more developed characters (and FFVI has arguably the greatest villain of the entire FF series). Final Fantasy Tactics, perhaps tied with VI as my favorite Final Fantasy of all time (objectively speaking, subjectively, this post should make it obvious what my choice would be), told a phenomenal story with great twists and turns. And, of course, each subsequent FF has had exponentially better graphics, if nothing else.

I wasn't kidding. Dude's sword is RIDICULOUSLY LONG.
Compensating much, Sephy?
But, for me, there's just something about VII. A few things, actually. Sephiroth, for one. The original (for me) bad-ass villain. And he looks like a rockstar, too. The silver hair and ridiculously long katana are now video game icons. The epic struggle to save the planet. Gold Saucer and all the mini-games. Cloud's mysterious backstory. The love triangle. Aeris' unexpected sacrifice. Canons the size of cities
(wtf?). And, of course, giant swords that are so impractical it's ridiculous. All of it drew me in, and I was powerless to resist. Even as I've looked at the story and characters with older, more experienced eyes, and seen them for what they really are (um...sort of nonsensical, all over the place, and underdeveloped), my feelings haven't changed.

And, interestingly, I'm not the only one. FFVII remains the Final Fantasy with the strongest cult following by far. The intense popularity of the game has led to numerous spin-offs and even a CG movie (which is awful, by the way, but hell yes I saw it almost immediately and loved every minute of it ["dilly-dally shilly-shally"? WTF?]) or two--see the Wikipedia compilation of all things FFVII here.* I'll be the first to admit that such a cult following isn't entirely justified, and I'll also be the first to admit that I am deeply embedded in said cult following. Oxymoronic? Perhaps. But that's how it is.

But FFVII has more meaning to me than anything I've mentioned so far, and for one very important reason: Final Fantasy VII is what got me writing.

I don't want to give it too much credit; I was scribbling stories in composition notebooks when I was in the first grade. But I'd never really had a compulsive drive to tell a story, never had an undeniable, almost uncontrollable desire to explore characters, until I finished FFVII...and wanted more. I wasn't done with the characters. I wasn't ready to let them go (let's be honest--I wanted Aeris back). I've spoken of how I love things that depress me before, and FFVII may have been the original.

So, I entered the wonderful realm of fan fiction.

I mostly read the stuff, at first. Frank Verderosa's The Final Fantasy VII Internet Series is, I think, what got me started, and is really the only story that still stands out in my mind (it is pretty epic, even as far as fan fiction is concerned). I got most of my fixes from IcyBrian's wonderful RPG fanfic compilation website. Seriously, that place was a lifesaver for me, and I spent probably hundreds of hours reading stories posted there.

And, for me, just reading them eventually wasn't enough. I had to start writing them, too. So I started my own FFVII fan fiction series. I've scoured IcyBrian's site and I don't think that first one is up there anymore. I think he might have taken down all of the series that weren't finished...I only ended up submitting three or four chapters, until I got bored with that idea and started on a new *alternate history* version of FFVII (I was so innovative, wasn't I?). Got three or four chapters into that, and then I got bored again. (I was a discovery writer from the beginning!) Neither of those stories are on the site anymore that I can see (and the links to the fanfic areas of the site don't even seem to be working anymore, for that matter...sad), although I do still have hard copies of them. Perhaps, one day, I'll post them on the blog. We'll see. BUT...Brian must have liked what he'd seen from me, because he tapped me to participate in what he called the "Cold Fusion" project. Essentially it was a group-written novel with zero collaboration (Brian facilitated this by making sure the authors did not know who each other were or contact one another at all, keeping the names secret until the next chapter had already been posted). So...if you are interested in reading what I wrote back in 1998ish about FFVII, look up Conor McCloud (my pen name at the I guess technically there's no way to verify that it was me who wrote the chapter, you'll just have to take my word for it) in the Cold Fusion part of the website. Or just follow this link, if you dare. And please, be kind. I was young, people (the title is mine, too, by the way--Ghosts of the Past, Phantoms of the Future--I thought I was pretty

So, anyway, that is the single most influential thing FFVII did for me: it got me writing. Story-wise, it's mediocre. It's characters are flashy on the outside, but have less substance than I prefer to admit. But something about that story drew me in, saved me from adolescent hell, and made me want more. Interestingly, at the time I would have killed for the spin-off games and movies and so forth that exist surrounding FFVII now--but, at the time, all I had was a fan fiction website and my own brain. So I made due.

I'm so glad I did, because I think it was one of the truest things to myself that I've ever done.

* I'll be honest, I'm sort of a purist where VII is concerned, though. I've seen Advent Children and read the plot synopses of a few other related FFVII stuff, but for the most part, I'm all about the original game**. I haven't felt the need to pursue the other material; for me, the original game is enough. And I actually think that is sort of a high compliment.

** Speaking of the original game, there were rumors of a remake of FFVII for the PS3 when the system first came out, mostly based around a technical demo for the system, embedded below. Now that the PS4 is just gaining popularity, rumors once again abound of a remake. I'm cautiously optimistic. I honestly doubt one will be made, but let me be the first to say it (or probably not the first, but whatever): if they remake FFVII for the PS4, I'll but a PS4 immediately if only to play that game. Because it will be amazing. (Or it won't...but it'll sure take me back.)

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Why Endings We Deserve are Better than Endings We Need


Ok. Long story short: I really loved the HIMYM finale.

But I'll expound a little. So Twitter and Facebook and my wife have been blowing up about how sad the finale was, how much everyone didn't like it, etc. And you know what? It was sad, I'll give you that, and in more ways than one. There were some twisty things happening.

But it was the ending that needed to happen.

Now, let me back up a bit. My favorite endings aren't the ones that always end happy. They aren't the ones that always end sad, either. My favorite endings are the ones that the stories deserve. (I'm stealing from The Dark Knight there, and in the title, in case you're wondering.)

Let me explain.

For me, writing is an organic process. Characters become pretty real to me when I'm writing a story. They have wants, desires, goals, needs, emotions, etc. I could go into more detail but then you'd think I'm schizophrenic and that's a whole other thing so we won't go there. Anyway, by proxy, the story I'm writing develops these same needs, too. The world I'm creating, the rules of the 'verse I'm toying with, as it were, evolve as I go along. And the further along I go, the more important it is I stick to the rules of said 'verse.

It's important to note here that I'm talking about rules in a pretty abstract sense. I'm talking generalities, here. I'm talking about staying true to the tone of the work at hand.

What are some (sort of) recent examples of having a great, surprising ending that still sticks to the tone of the work, you ask? Sure: The video game The Last of Us, for one (have I mentioned how amazing this game is? It is AMAZING.) TLOU was bleak and horrifying, and the ending was bleak and horrifying, and it still managed to surprise me. And it was awesome. Joe Abercrombie's The Last Argument of Kings, the third book in his First Law Trilogy, does a wonderful job of this, too. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Dark Knight--they all stay true to their respective tones, while still managing to surprise me in the process.

Some stories don't do this. It isn't necessarily a deal breaker for me, but it always hurts my impression of the story. The TV shows Lost and the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica both suffered because of their endings. The endings were emotionally satisfying, which I appreciated, but as far as I'm concerned strayed from what the stories were about the whole time. They felt more like wish fulfillment, or emotional pandering, than appropriate endings.

Maybe I'm being too relativistic about this. Different people interpret different stories different ways. That's fine. But, as a writer, I'm particularly sensitive to this kind of thing, and at least for me, good endings stick to the tone of the story. The best endings manage to surprise me while they're at it.

HIMYM's series finale did that.

Don't get me wrong. I was devastated by a few things that happened. Barney and Robin getting divorced, for one. And, of course, the reveal that Future-Ted is telling this story to his kinds after the Mother has already passed away. Those were awful revelations. But (1) they were well-handled in the story, and (2) they allowed the finale to surprise me.

And hey, things could have been worse. Since the episode "Time Travelers" (8:?) aired I've been terrified that the finale would end with Ted telling his kids this whole story because their mom just died (seriously go watch the last five minutes of "Time Travelers" and you'll see what I mean*). That would have been an awful ending. "Wait, that was the ending," some of you are saying. No, it wasn't. That ending would have put Ted, who seriously has been through the romantic ringer on this show, on the lowest note possible at the end of the series, and that would have been awful. Instead, yeah, the Mother dies, and that is terrible. I get knots in my chest just thinking about it. But...there's a silver lining. Ted doesn't have to end up alone. And despite the title of the show, despite the frame story, HIMYM has never been about the Mother. It's been about Ted's journey to become the person he is when he meets the Mother. Because that's what the story has always been about, we can accept the Mother's death, that Ted handled it with grace, and that now he has a chance at happiness once more. He doesn't have to watch his kids grow up alone. He has Robin.

And that whole idea that this story isn't about the Mother is the point I'm making. Ted's kids are right: How I Met Your Mother really wasn't about how Ted met the kids' mother. The last season counts as that, I think, and a few other random bits (Umbrella, Cindy, etc.). But here's the thing. In the pilot episode, Ted meets Robin. The following 8 seasons are about how Ted and Robin (and kind of Barney) deal with the ups and downs of their relationship. Ted found happiness with other people--most significantly Tracy, the Mother. Robin found happiness with other people--most significantly Barney. But the kids are right. And Robin and Ted end up together.

HIMYM has been criticized for beating the Ted-Robin relationship to death, especially in later seasons. Hinting at the continued potential relationship between the two of them brought some significant flak to the show. Even during this last season there were moments where the Ted and Robin relationship still seemed possible. The episode "sunrise" was a great red herring along those lines, by the way. But this finale makes all of that stuff between Ted and Robin worth it. This finale shows why the writers could never quite leave that relationship alone.

So while this ending was a shocker, and while this ending was sad, it was exactly the ending HIMYM deserved.

So, that's it. The kids are right.

Oh, and Marshall wins the bet. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Lil.

BONUS! My favorite moments of the How I Met Your Mother Series Finale:

  • ET Goodbye
  • High Infinity
  • Alison Hannigan. Just...Alison Hannigan.
  • Cockamouse!
  • Lily as the White Whale
  • Judge Fudge
  • "I can see that."
  • Barney Meets Ellie
  • The Second Proposal (seriously, I could not imagine a better Mother than Cristin Miliotti)
  • "All kinds of stuff."
  • T.M.
  • Smurf Penis.

* Full disclosure: "The Mother is Dead" theory has apparently been around for at least a year, although I didn't know that until after the Finale when I was scouring the internetz like a crazy person.